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Twitter’s ‘ban’ on political ads has a gaping, legacy media-shaped loophole

Twitter’s ‘ban’ on political ads has a gaping, legacy media-shaped loophole
Trying to stay ahead of spurious allegations of enabling ‘Russian meddling’ into US elections, Twitter has outlawed all political advertising – but left an exemption most US legacy media, though partisan, will easily sail through.

“Twitter globally prohibits the promotion of political content. We have made this decision based on our belief that political message reach should be earned, not bought,” the company announced Friday, sharing the details of its ad ban.

Elaborating on the decision in a thread, Twitter’s head of legal, policy and Trust & Safety Vijaya Gadde effectively admitted that the ban was driven by concerns over digital advertising “driving political outcomes” – even though the effects of micro-targeted ads “are not yet fully understood.”

The ban is scheduled to go into effect on November 22. In addition to banning candidates, parties, and affiliated groups like political action committees (PACs) from advertising, Twitter is also ruling out ads that are about influencing votes, parties, ballot initiatives or elections. “Cause-based ads” will be allowed with certain restrictions, but again not when coming from candidates, parties or politicians.

If this sounds convoluted, banning both people and content, that’s because it is. However, the policy has a sizeable exemption for “news publishers” who can run ads referencing “political content and/or prohibited advertisers,” so long as there is no advocacy for or against. 

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To qualify, a publication’s website must have “a minimum of 200,000 monthly unique visitors in the US,” the ability to contact its editors and reporters online, have a searchable archive, and not be a user-generated platform or aggregator. Nor can the publication be dedicated to advocating on a single issue.

These parameters clearly skew the playing field in favor of US legacy media – despite its open partisanship over the past several years. Not only have the legacy media and Democrats blamed the social media for enabling the election of President Donald Trump, they have also led the charge in pressuring Twitter, Facebook and others to “deplatform” any alternative voices they might find unsavory. 

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Most recently, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) actually demanded Twitter suspend Trump’s account as part of her pitch for the 2020 presidential nomination – so far, without effect. 

In August, Twitter rolled out a ban on ads from “state-controlled news media entities,” using a convoluted definition that also carves out exemptions for well-established legacy outlets in the West. 

(Full disclosure: Twitter banned RT ads long before that, without explanation or process, following the initial 2017 congressional hearings into social media platforms, and the revelation that it proposed a multi-million dollar deal to RT during the 2016 election, which was declined.)

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The vast majority – about 86 percent – of Twitter’s revenue comes from advertising, with data licensing and other sources accounting for the rest. The company turned an annual profit for the first time in 2018, five years after going public. 

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